Gov. Jay Nixon is defending his decision to deploy Missouri National Guard troops to Ferguson.
Nixon issued a statement earlier this morning, announcing his decision to send in the Guard after what may have been the worst night of rioting since the protests began a week ago. Nixon explained his decision by citing "violent criminal acts of an organized and growing number of individuals, many from outside the community and state, whose actions are putting the residents and businesses of Ferguson at risk."
Shortly before 12:30 p.m. today, the governor issued a follow-up statement saying that Brigadier Gen. Gregory Mason will be in charge of Guard troops in Ferguson, and that their primary mission will be to protect the Unified Command Center, which Nixon says was the "target last night of a coordinated attack."
The governor's decision to send in the Guard has not been universally welcomed. State Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, condemned Nixon's decision to call out the Missouri National Guard. He says he finds it hard to believe that there is any organized effort by rioters to conduct acts of violence.
"If you need an army to come in to handle a handful of knuckleheads, we've got a bigger problem," Smith said in a phone interview this afternoon.
In addition, Smith says he encountered two rival gang members on the streets of Ferguson Saturday night. They were talking with each other about the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
"(It) was a productive conversation ... (a) peaceful dialogue," Smith said, "I didn't see people trying to fight each other (or) stab each other ... it was a real conversation."
Smith also released a written statement earlier today, in which he said "the overwhelming majority of protesters are peaceful and law abiding," and that deploying the National guard is "an ill-advised escalation that could serve to make an already tense situation worse."
Smith's written statement reads, in part:
"Addressing the grievances of those in our community who have been victims of police brutality, racial profiling, employment discrimination and institutional racism is the only way to bring calm to the area. Treating Ferguson as an occupied territory by placing tanks and armed soldiers on its streets is a huge leap in the opposite direction and will only further the distrust of government in my community."
House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, says he approves of the governor's action, but he also criticized his leadership as a whole.
"What you're seeing is for the first time in this governor's six years in office, he's being required to lead from the front," Jones said. "This is a governor who's typically been a very reactionary governor; he has typically led from behind, he has typically waited to react to situations."
Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says any governor is put in a tough position when the National Guard is needed to respond to civil unrest.
"In this case, (Gov. Nixon) is being criticized for (both) going too slowly, and for going at all," Robertson said. "If the situation in Ferguson calms down, if, for example, the people who have been engaged in late night activities ... if they begin to just tire out after all this time, I think Nixon will be given some credit for beginning to put in motion the things that brought the unrest to at least temporary closure."
Nixon said he took the action because “as long as there are vandals and looters and threats to the people and property of Ferguson, we must take action to protect our citizens.”
The Guard seems to be saying around the command center, which is in a shopping mall about half a mile south of the Canfield Green apartment complex where police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown on Aug. 9.
Brigadier Gen. Gregory Mason will oversee the National Guard operations, but overall command will remain in the hands of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The governor also said that the midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew had been lifted.
It’s still not known how many National Guard troops are currently in Ferguson. But reaction to their arrival has been mixed.
Ericka Artz lives in Chesterfield but works for the Ferguson Fire Department. She said it’s about time the police took stronger action to crack down on the violence. “The fire and EMS workers, along with the residents of Ferguson, need protecting,” Artz said. “This has gone on long enough.”
Hazelwood resident Charlee Johnson, however, thinks bringing in the National Guard ― and arming police with military equipment ― just makes it more likely that innocent people will get hurt.
Johnson has been coming to Ferguson every day for the past week in solidarity with the peaceful protests.
“I’m just hoping for justice when it’s all said and done,” Johnson said. “And I hope that this will bring about a change overall in policemen gunning down unarmed civilians.”
Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport
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